‘A physicist is just an atoms way of looking at itself’- Niels Bohr
There is a time and a place to read A Brief History of Time, probably, but 6:30am in the back of a pickup truck definitely isn’t it. Trying to get a basic understanding of string theory, space-time and particle physics whilst half asleep, bumping along country roads to the sound of Absolute Radio is a tough challenge, one that I have now tried and failed. A brain that awakes before six is not one ready to comprehend the mind-bending science regarding the mysteries of the universe and the enigmas of quantum theory. To be fair, I don’t think I would’ve fared much better with more sleep and a more serene setting, it is all very confusing. Some of the key theories are so abstract and so conflicting with rational thought that my tired little noggin cannot comprehend the complexities of the workings of the universe. The sheer scale of the concepts involved are staggering, too much for me to compute, thinking of how far away the sun is blows my mind, never mind how big the whole universe is. The other side doesn’t help, trying to picture the infinitesimally small is equally just as incomprehensible when Hawking discusses tiny particles inside already tiny atoms. And that is why I loved it. Pondering the grand scales and tiny building blocks that make everything possible, wondering why there is something rather than nothing is inspiring and mind-blowing, it excites curiosity and transcendency. As I leave my house and look up at the stars it ignites amazement at the miracle of life and only brings about a mild existential crisis that I am about to use that miracle to go and stack bricks in the rain.
I may not have understood much of the science but I enjoyed it regardless. It is still thrilling and fantastically otherworldly. It is incredibly compact but not a dense slog through scientific jargon. Hawking employs clear analogies and metaphors to translate the physics and Einstein’s famous E=MC2 is the only equation that made the cut. The book’s mission is to popularise science and to make it accessible, bringing the delights of scientific discovery into the mainstream. Considering it sold over 10 million copies, I think it completed the mission. Hawking also adds in strokes of wit and humour astutely, further bringing the reader into the land of the comprehensible and away from the metaphysical. The backgrounds of famous scientists such as Newton and Galileo as well as the context of some of the greatest discoveries infuse a human element that is particularly fascinating, it is important to try and understand not just the world-changing thinking, but the people who managed to think such things up.
I do love this genre. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the accompanying tv show are another source of exceptional science popularising, as is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, but there is something different about A Brief History of Time. Perhaps it is the compact yet clear form of the book or the English wit, or maybe because it came from one of the most brilliant, intriguing, enigmatic minds of recent times. Whatever it is, I loved it regardless, I just wish I read it whilst sitting under a clear night sky. I doubt I would’ve understood much more though.